All posts by thomas

Let’s campaign and let campaign!

BBC bias demonstration
BBC bias demonstration by Thomas Widmann, on Flickr.
It must be easy to run an astroturf campaign. Because all your activists are actually your employees, they’ll do exactly what you want them to do. There’s no dissent, no mixed messages.

However, astroturf campaigns often fail because people can tell something’s not right. They can see that those campaigners don’t actually believe what they’re saying, and the whole thing looks too much like a pretty façade with nothing behind it. Also, unless you’ve got endless supplies of money, it’s difficult to hire enough staff to create enough activity on the ground.

A real grassroots campaign is very different. It’s full of different people with their own ideas, hopes and goals. You can make suggestions to them, but if they don’t see the point, they’re unlikely to follow your lead.

The Yes campaign has over the past couple of years developed into one of the most impressive grassroots movements of recent years. Lots of real people — often with no previous political engagement — are now spending many hours every week campaigning for a Yes vote. For a long time, formal guidance from Yes Scotland was minimal, so people found their own ways of doing things — they created their own events and their own campaign materials.

Recently, however, there have been signs that some people at Yes Scotland HQ have started to worry about their lack of control. For instance, they’ve been distancing themselves from Wings over Scotland and yesterday’s BBC bias demonstration, and too many people seem to spend half their time telling other people off on Twitter for tweeting the wrongs links or attending the wrong events.

It’s almost as if some people have got a bit fed up with their real grassroots campaigners. Perhaps they had hoped they’d suddenly start behaving like astroturf employees during the regulated campaign. Perhaps cautious campaigners just want everybody to be cautious — Wee Ginger Dug pointed out that “the more cautious in any campaign for civil rights often criticise those who are fearless.”

Such cautious advice is likely to backfire, however. Activists have spent the past two years building their own networks and campaigns, and they’re not likely to take kindly to orders from above (at let’s not forget that when Hope Street was the focus of negative media stories in the past, activists didn’t take to Twitter to criticise their actions).

Also, to many activists, blogs such as Wings provide a very important service. As Robin McAlpine put it:

[Wings over Scotland] has lifted our spirits throughout the campaign. When we wake up in the morning and Yes Scotland isn’t in the papers (why?) and the SNP is being timid and talking like an accountant, it is often Wings that is the primary source of commentary that doesn’t seem always to accept the premise set by the mainstream media as the only possible frame for discussing independence. It makes it OK to be both angry and excited while becoming informed at the same time.

I completely understand why Yes Scotland HQ might feel at times that they need to lead things a bit more. However, I don’t think they’re going about it the right way.

I’m a father, and here’s some parental advice: If your kids are having fun baking a cake while making a complete mess, but you’d rather they were out cutting the lawn, don’t just storm into the kitchen and shout at them. If you do, they’re likely to storm up to their room and slam the door, and you’ll be left with a messy kitchen and an uncut lawn. It’s much better to join them in the kitchen, give them hints about how to tidy up as you go along, and try to talk them into cutting the lawn while the cake is in the oven. In this way, you’re likely to end up with a slightly messy kitchen, a nice cake and a beautiful lawn.

In the same way, if some campaigners spend their time criticising other campaigners for their campaigning style, the inevitable result is that everybody ends up doing less campaigning. It’s much better to make positive suggestions and just be open about the fact that it’s a grassroots campaign where the HQ isn’t always in charge of everything. Diversity is our strength, so we shouldn’t suddenly start saying it’s a problem.

Of course you sometimes cringe at other people’s actions. That’s life. Nobody’s perfect, but we all have something to contribute. Altering the well-known adage live and let live ever so slightly, may I suggest that we all simply campaign and let campaign?

The election of Juncker means we must vote Yes

Eu  Council: President Van Rompuy welcoming the British PM David Cameron
Eu Council: President Van Rompuy welcoming the British PM David Cameron by President of the European Council, on Flickr.
It’s now certain that Jean-Claude Juncker will become President of the European Commission. The European Council (the heads of government of the 28 EU states) voted 26–2 in favour of Juncker — only the UK and Hungary voted against — and getting approved by the European Parliament is a formality in this case.

I’m not at all impressed by the way David Cameron has conducted his campaign against Juncker, and it bodes ill for the UK’s future in the EU.

From a federalist continental European perspective, Juncker looked like a popular and democratic choice. Everybody has been complaining about the lack of democratic legitimacy for ages, and an obvious improvement was made possible by the fact that the Lisbon Treaty requires the election of the Commission President to “take account of the elections to the European Parliament”. Each of the European political parties (political parties in European countries are affiliated to these) therefore put forward a candidate (a so-called “Spitzenkandidat”, using the German word) prior to the elections. Most voters in the UK might not have been aware of this, but a vote for Scottish Labour was also a vote for Martin Schulz to become Commission President. The result of the elections was that the European People’s Party (which didn’t field any candidates in this country) again became the largest party, and therefore it was natural that their Spitzenkandidat, Jean-Claude Juncker, should become President.

However, Westminster wants to roll back the EU, so they block all moves towards federalism (which in an EU context means making joint decisions democratically in the European Parliament and the European Council). It was therefore obvious that Westminster didn’t want Juncker — he’s a committed federalist, he was backed by the European Parliament, and he didn’t owe Britain any favours. They wanted to veto him and instead elect a useless compromise candidate that would ensure the EU didn’t achieve much.

This has often been Westminster’s way. Perhaps the most blatant example was seen 20 years ago, when John Major vetoed the appointment of Jean-Luc Dehaene, after which Jacques Santer was appointed in his stead. Since then, national vetoes have been removed from lots of places in the EU, and Cameron didn’t have the power to veto Juncker, which is perhaps why this tried and tested method of sabotaging the EU didn’t work this time.

In retrospect, Cameron should have tried to prevent Juncker from becoming the EPP’s Spitzenkandidat, but that was impossible because of his stupid decision to pull the Tories out of the EPP and set up its own Eurosceptic political group (the ECR), which now includes Danish and Finnish xenophobic parties in a failed attempt to prevent UKIP from getting enough members to create its own group in the parliament.

However, this leaves Cameron and Westminster in a very bad position. They have antagonised the new President of the Commission by making their opposition to him very public, and it has also become clear that the other EU countries aren’t bending over backwards in the hope that it will entice the British population to vote to remain in the EU in the in/out referendum.

It seems increasingly likely that Cameron won’t be able to negotiate any significant exemptions, and that rather than rolling back European integration, the threat of a British exit will actually encourage the federalists, which again will make it increasingly hard to get the mainly Eurosceptic English electorate to vote to remain in the EU.

Today’s events have made it much more likely that the country led by Westminster will leave the EU in a couple of years’ time. The question that remains is whether Scotland remains in the EU together with Ireland, Denmark and Sweden.

The move towards European federalism is actually a good thing for Scotland (because the alternative is that the big countries call the shots), and Juncker is a rather good candidate that an independent Scotland most likely would have supported.

However, we can only chose to remain in the EU if we’re independent. If we vote No to independence and the UK votes to leave the EU, the only thing keeping the country afloat will be the global financial services in London. It would be a disaster for Scotland, probably even worse than the Thatcher years.

The election of Juncker makes a Yes vote even more imperative. It doesn’t serve Scotland well to be represented by these numpties in Westminster who don’t even understand how the EU works, who think only in terms of vetoes and rebates.

We must be independent!

Addendum (29/6): Alyn Smith MEP and Iain Macwhirter make some interesting observations about this in today’s Sunday Herald. First the MEP:

Cameron does not know how Europe works, he does not know the rules, he has ignored and belittled most of the other players and, worse, he gives every impression of not caring less. “He’s f***ed it up, he’s totally f***ed it it up.” Excuse the language, but those are not my words, but those of Polish foreign minister Radosław Sikorski — an urbane, smart, arch Anglophile Atlanticist, and an Oxford graduate and Bullingdon Club member to boot — in secret recordings, in a scandal running large in Poland.

That’s the way David Cameron’s closest allies talk about him when they think the recorders are off. In the cafés and bars of Brussels in recent weeks I’ve heard worse language than that used to describe the Prime Minister.

And now Iain Macwhirther:

I’ve been spending quite a lot of time in England recently and I can confirm that this debate about federalism barely figures on the metropolitan radar. What does figure is a very widespread hostility to the European Union of a kind we very rarely hear in Scotland. This isn’t got up by the press. Many ordinary English voters seriously believe that Europe is bossing them around, taking their cash, flooding them with immigrants and generally taking away their liberties. The strength of feeling is quite startling to those of us who have seen European integration as a broadly positive movement – an expression of internationalism.

Vote Yes to save the Danish welfare state

P3313479 by tracy apps, on Flickr.
Denmark used to have a great welfare state, but it’s getting undermined at the moment.

For instance, private hospitals are taking over more and more of the Danish NHS (like in England). Unemployment benefits are being reduced. Nursery prices are going up. Tax rates for high earners are getting cut.

Interestingly, it’s not because Denmark cannot afford the welfare state at the moment, but because politicians and civil servants are primarily getting their inspiration from the US and from England, so they’re under the impression that it’s the only way forward.

To a large extent, the Danish political left lost its mojo years ago. A majority of people want to preserve the welfare state that they love, but they keep getting told its unaffordable (which is simply not true).

Meanwhile, in Scotland the independence debate has energised lots of people, so the whole place is buzzing with new ideas. We’ve also lived with Westminster’s neo-liberal consensus for so long that we know why it’s wrong.

Projects like the Common Weal are thus showing the way forward for the welfare state, and it’s in many ways years ahead of the Danish debate.

I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Danish politicians start flocking to Scotland soon after independence to learn about the Common Weal and find inspiration to rebuild and improve the Danish welfare state.

Most Danes might not realise it, but Denmark needs Scotland to vote Yes.

Seen elsewhere

Today I produced my 10,000th tweet. Of course — as anybody who follows me on Twitter will know — a large part of my tweets are links to independence-related stories, prefixed with the words “Seen elsewhere”.

These links are produced automatically whenever I bookmark a link using Delicious, and they also end up in the left-hand column.

I started doing this towards towards the end of 2011, and since then I’ve bookmarked slightly more than 4000 links.

Here are the top 20 sites I’ve linked to:

The impossibility of UK federalism

Bundesrat - Festival of Lights
Bundesrat – Festival of Lights by Stadtlichtpunkte, on Flickr.
I had decided to stop talking about federalism, for the simple reason that it’s not on offer and is a distraction from the much more urgent independence debate.

However, today Labour started talking about replacing the House of Lords with a regional chamber:

[Labour leader Ed Miliband’s policy team] are looking at proposals for a radically reformed second chamber made up of representatives from Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the English regions. The body would be “indirectly elected”, possibly by elected politicians from the different nations and regions of the UK.

Whereas this proposal would probably be better than the currently unelected mess, it wouldn’t be federalism.

Federalism is at heart a symmetrical system (there are some exceptions, such as India, but what I describe here holds true for the best-known examples such as Germany and the US). What this means is that the states (Länder in Germany) all have the same powers, and it’s well-defined which powers are reserved to central government. Countries with federal systems often have a bicameral parliament: One representing the people, with one vote per citizen (e.g., the American House of Representatives and the German Bundestag) and one representing the states (e.g., the Senate and the Bundesrat); the latter sometimes give equal representations to the states (e.g., in the Senate each state has two members), but sometimes big states have slightly more votes (e.g., in the Bundesrat each Land has between 3 and 6 votes, depending on size).

Federal countries normally have states that are similar in size, but it’s not a requirement. However, England is huge (53m inhabitants, while the rest of the nations have only about 10m together), and this makes it hard to establish a federal system.

Firstly, the English Parliament would be hugely influential — it’s quite possible the best political talents would go there rather than to the UK Parliament, and it’s probably all the BBC would be talking about most of the time.

Secondly, a proper federal parliament would allow Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to block legislation desired by England. For instance, using the Bundesrat scheme, the three smaller nations would have 3 votes each, so they could easily outvote England (with 6 votes).

This is of course where Labour’s devious invention comes into play. By resurrecting the English regions (which aren’t popular in England — let’s not forget how people voted No to regional assemblies when they were asked), they can overcome this problem. By splitting England into nine regions for Senate vote allocation purposes, they can ensure that England will never be outvoted by the small nations of the UK.

However, of course Labour aren’t proposing to give the English regions powers like the real nations. There won’t be an East Midlands legal system, there won’t be an independent South West NHS, there won’t be a separate Church of Yorkshire and the Humber, there won’t be a distinct London education system, and the North West won’t start fielding its own football team in international tournaments.

The problem is that if there is a debate in Labour’s second chamber about the NHS, for instance, the three nations with their own separate health systems will be outvoted by the nine English regions that not only share an NHS but also have no direct influence over it, given that it’s controlled by Westminster.

The only way I can think of to create proper federalism in the UK is to split England into two or more nations, each having the same powers as Scotland. However, this will never happen. The English feel their nation is England, and it would be an abomination to destroy England in order to save the UK. The consequence is that the UK will never become a federal state. It’s impossible.

The weakening of the Scottish institutions

Prime Minister Gordon Brown
Prime Minister Gordon Brown by Downing Street, on Flickr.
It might come as something of a shock to people who know me, but for once I agree with Gordon Brown (in his recent article in The Guardian):

It is also a mistake to think what’s new is Scotland demanding its own national institutions and the freedom to run them. From its churches and law to its schools, universities and hospitals, Scotland has had its own distinctive national institutions throughout all those 300 years of union. […]

Perhaps surprisingly, what is also new is the recent loss of a million members from Scotland’s churches and the weakening of the Scottish institutions – religious, legal, educational and even sporting – which expressed our Scottishness. They provided an anchor that made us comfortable with being part of Britain. The delicate balance between cultural nationalism and political unionism has been ruptured […]

I think this analysis is spot on. For centuries, Scotland effectively had cultural autonomy within a political, economic and monetary union called the British Empire. Because of this autonomy, and because almost no Scots spoke English as their native language until recently (Scots and Gaelic dominated for a long time as spoken languages, and English was only used in schools and churches and some other formal settings), their was no threat to Scottishness at all.

However, these days it’s getting harder and harder to define what it means to be Scottish. The TV programmes young people watch the most are British (X Factor, Big Brother, The Apprentice, Britain’s Got Talent and so on), the churches are dying out, and Scots increasingly speak standard English with a slight accent — and even that is dying out (my kids are struggling with pronouncing the ‘ch’ in ‘loch’ and the ‘w’ in ‘whale’). Gordon Brown even created a UK-wide football team for the Olympics.

I’m surprised how Gordon Brown can see these issues so clearly and yet fail to provide any solutions for them. His article doesn’t suggest any concrete measures — he doesn’t suggest splitting up the BBC into four national broadcasters, he doesn’t think the UK should field four separate Olympic teams, he doesn’t draw up a plan for revitalising Scots and Gaelic.

Because Unionists don’t seem to want to do anything to create new distinctive Scottish institutions to repair the “delicate balance between cultural nationalism and political unionism”, I cannot help but conclude that they’re happy to see Scotland merging gradually with England until eventually it becomes just another British region like Yorkshire or Devon.

I agree with Gordon Brown’s analysis, and so far as I can see, the only practical solution to the problems he raises is independence. Surely he can see that too?

The great Unionist conspiracy theory

Mut & solidarität statt blut & boden
Mut & solidarität statt blut & boden by Fabio Panico, on Flickr.
A large number of Unionist politicians, activists and voters seem to strongly believe that Alex Salmond is a liar (“lying bastard” is the way it’s normally expressed), that the SNP is at heart a fascist party and that Scotland will be turned into a totalitarian one-party state after independence.

This is rather odd, because this flies in the face of all evidence. In my experience Salmond might try to avoid answering a question — like all experienced politicians — but I’d say he’s less mendacious than most. The SNP is a left-of-centre party that is welcoming to foreigners, and the first elections in an independent Scotland have already been planned for 2016.

The disconnect between reality and Unionist beliefs is so great that it’s starting to look like a conspiracy theory (defined by Wikipedia as an “explanatory proposition that accuses two or more persons, a group, or an organization of having caused or covered up, through secret planning and deliberate action, an illegal or harmful event or situation”).

In my experience conspiracies appear when people for some reason don’t feel that the obvious explanation makes any sense. For instance, lots of theories have appeared about the fate of MH370 because it sounds so unlikely that a Boeing 777 can go missing in the 21st century.

However, to me the facts about the SNP and the wider Yes movement are easy to find and make perfect sense. So what is it that make some people invent ludicrous theories about us?

Perhaps it all begins with the Too Wee, Too Poor, Too Stupid attitude. Lots of Unionists seem to take this proposition for granted (even if they don’t like to admit it out loud).

If Scotland is too wee, too poor and too stupid to be independent, then logically the Yes campaign must be either be misguided or lying when they claim Scotland will be a rich and successful country after independence.

Whereas many Yes campaigners can be excused as being misguided (or useful idiots, if you will), this cannot be said about Alex Salmond, who is intelligent and well-informed, as well as having hundreds of civil servants at his disposal. He must therefore be lying.

But why would he be lying? What’s his interest in claiming that Scotland can be a successful independent country? He must either be doing it out of personal ambition, or he must believe in an evil ideology (such as fascism) that blinds him to the human cost of this endeavour.

As soon as you start seeing Salmond as a budding fascist dictator, it suddenly makes sense that the entire SNP party must be full of blood and soil (Blut und Boden) Nazis. Also, fascists are known to be very regimented, so it cannot possibly be the case that the cybernats are acting independently — they must be controlled centrally, preferably by Alex Salmond himself.

And there you go — it all makes perfect sense. Except that it is completely and utterly wrong! It flies in the face of all available evidence, as anybody who has attended an SNP or Yes Scotland meeting will tell you.

It is a conspiracy theory and should be treated as such.